It's easy for business leaders to state that 'our staff are our biggest asset', but this claim means little if it isn't backed by proper investment and a well-planned, effective learning and development strategy. This is particularly true if, as United Response does, you work with vulnerable people.
Every day our staff have to make difficult but crucial decisions about how to support people with complex disabilities in their day-to-day lives. They have to balance their duty to keep people safe with a positive 'can do' attitude to risk, so that the people they support can try new things and achieve the things they want to in their lives - in the same way that every other person can.
The price of failing to invest in staff was made tragically clear in June's shocking Panorama documentary, which revealed the abuse of people with learning disabilities in a 'secure unit' in the south west of England. Among the many failings the documentary exposed, it appeared that few of the staff had been trained in even the most basic standards of care.
In 1973, when United Response was founded, our approach was different from what was on offer elsewhere. We were one of the first organisations to support people with severe learning disabilities to live in the community rather than in institutions, hence there was no 'off-the-shelf' training available. We worked closely with those we supported and their families, learning as we went, and the results spoke for themselves as many people's lives were transformed.
Increased legislation created a need for more structured training, so we searched for the best models and adapted them to suit our needs. We quickly realised that there is much to learn from other sectors. This creative approach to training, one where we always strive to improve, has guided us through 38 years of enormous change and growth, and it will also guide us through the current economic crisis and into the future.
In 2006, for example, we revitalised our core training through our person-centred thinking programme - the Way We Work - which later won a National Training Award. We partnered with consultants Helen Sanderson Associates to develop simple but powerful training courses and tools for all frontline staff. These helped everyone to work in a person-centred way, one where our working practices were always structured around the unique needs of the individual being supported, and not just our own organisational requirements.
We also do all we can to learn directly from our 'customers' - in our case, people who require support - and involve them in both designing and delivering our training. Take Rosemary and Gillian, two older women who have been supported by United Response for several years. Having spent decades in institutions, and then living increasingly independently in the community, who could possibly know more about what kind of support helped them achieve such remarkable things? That's why they have led Train the Trainer courses, where United Response staff, who deliver training to their colleagues, learnt first-hand from Rosemary and Gillian.
More recently, we have embraced technology to ensure our training remains as flexible and effective as possible. At their best, e-learning programmes can be extremely good value and can also be tailored to suit different staff members' needs and working patterns. Of course, e-learning can only work when it complements face-to-face learning: there is no complete substitute for learning from real people in real time.
However, even heavy investment in learning and development risks being squandered if it's not backed by a truly employee-friendly working approach, which is why we also do all we can to recognise how people have used their new skills, and celebrate their successes.
It's because we know the life-transforming difference that our staff can make to people's lives that we are so focused on learning and development, and why we welcome those awards which explicitly recognise our staff. Recently we received an excellence award from the National Skills Academy and were quietly proud when the assessor said: 'Visiting United Response was an uplifting and inspiring experience. The whole organisation lives and breathes social care values, and the inclusion of people who use their services is intrinsic to everything they do. They are an exemplar organisation, making a real difference to the quality of life for the people they serve.'
Of course, it isn't just charities or social care providers which should be investing in their people. All businesses should be doing the same. In the current difficult economic climate it's increasingly hard to stand out from competitors and to forge real and deep connections with customers. Skilled staff, who are true experts in their field and utterly committed to doing their best, can make all the difference. Those organisations which achieve such excellence have all discovered the same formula: a strong focus on their core purpose and values, coupled with first-class training.
Su Sayer co-founded United Response in 1973 and made it into a top 100 charity which provides social care services to more than 1,500 people across England and Wales. Su was awarded an OBE in 2000 for services to disabled people. She is also winner of the Charity Times lifetime achievement and the Charity Awards outstanding achievement awards.